How Much Does Wood Figure Matter?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Bill Enloe, Apr 24, 2016.

  1. Bill Enloe

    Bill Enloe

    Apr 24, 2016
    Bay Area
    My Daughter is in Middle School, and is a progressing bassist. She has outgrown her student instrument both physically and musically, and is ready for a 3/4 size. Because she has lots of music experience, is committed to the Bass, and is planning to play bass in high school and beyond, I am looking at a French Quenoil style bass with carved top, sides and back. The bass has the correct 41" string length, 18/25 bouts, and 5 3/8 - 7 - 7 3/4 sides for this style. The finish inside also looks to be well done. It looks good and sounds great. Like most new instruments in this $3k price range, it is a high quality Chinese import.

    My question is about the wood figure and tuners. How much does this matter? I have 3 options:
    • Plane wood on all sides with a little figure on the lower sides and none anywhere else w/ plate tuners. -$400 from base price because of the plane wood.
    • Moderately figured wood with plate tuners. The standard model at the standard price.
    • Very nicely flamed wood with nice looking individual tuners and a 'custom fingerboard'. I have not yet asked what 'custom fingerboard' means, it is the same length and square at the end, but the wood does look nicer. This one is +$300 from the standard price, or +$700 vs. the plane model.
    My question is: How much does the wood figure matter in the sound, performance, and use/resale value of the base?

    We have the plane model at home and she is starting to play it. It sounds great. She is also going to play the others, and even some different models from another shop.

    She should keep this Bass through high school, I hope. I know she'll probably need an orchestral bass when she is a Jr/Sr, or when she goes to College, but she should plan to keep this one until then I think (?).

    The $400 vs. the base model would help to cover the bow she also needs and a better bag (the bass comes with a bag, but I don't like the handles). At the same time, if the wood makes a real difference in the ability to keep, upgrade, or resell the instrument, I have to take that into account too. THANKS!!!

    Attached Files:

  2. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    Having ordered a plain wood bass, I don't think the sound will be that drastically different but I would counsel that figured wood will make resale easier. People loved flamed wood. Sound wise the type of wood (maple vs. spruce vs. etc) will matter more than the figure.
  3. Just my $.02, but I don't see paying a +/- 20% upcharge for highly flamed material over the plainest. It's pretty, but its hard to imagine recapturing that extra $700 at resale. Before buying, I'd take some time to research whether that extra money would put me into a better quality less-figured instrument rather than investing in cosmetics.
    robobass likes this.
  4. I would go with the one that sounds the best. If the 'custom fingerboard' is indeed a better piece of ebony than the ones on the other basses, that might be worth the extra money because it may be harder and more stable and could save you money down the road. I'm a sucker for wood with nice figure but I don't think I'd pay extra for it at this price point unless the bass has a better sound than the others. BTW is the top wood the same quality in all three basses? And do the individual tuners feel/seem much better than the plate tuners?
  5. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    When commercial shops utilize their best wood, they generally also pay more attention to details like proper wood drying, graduation of plates, joint fitting and choice of fittings and accessories. If the highly figured model sounds as good or better than the plain model I would advise you to consider it. As mentioned above, it may also affect the resale a bit down the road. Good luck!
  6. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Your daughter needs the bass that plays to her voice. I recently went through a similar process with finding a Cello for my daughter. She tried about 8 instruments but only one sounded like her. She then tried a few bows and one really worked with her and the selected Cello. As if happened the wood on the back was nicely figured and it had a very thin French finish, but we did the tests without considering the look or price of the instruments she was trying out. In the end the Cello was about $3700 but sounded better than some closer to $5000. The bow was another $350.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2016
  7. In of itself, wood figure doesn't really make a difference. However, it definitely can look nice, and it will do more for the "value" since it looks nice - consider this if you think it's going to be resold. It costs more because finding big enough, highly figured pieces is somewhat of a rarity.

    I don't care too much about a flamed back myself though. I mean, when I'm playing my bass, I don't exactly spend time looking at the back of it - plus the top of it is always on display. Sometimes plain unfigured wood looks great by itself too. Mine is, and I like it that way.

    "At the same time, if the wood makes a real difference in the ability to keep, upgrade, or resell the instrument, I have to take that into account too."

    Keeping: figured wood doesn't really require special care
    Upgrading: not really
    Resale: absolutely. If people are buying a bass to have for a long time, they want it to look "nice" and will shell out a bit more for flamed/quilted/curled/etc figures
  8. If I could be so bold, you should listen to Mr. Schnitzer. You will not likely find anybody anywhere who knows more about basses than he does.
    Jeff Bonny likes this.
  9. CharlyG

    CharlyG ~ he not busy being born Is busy dying.

    Jun 11, 2005
    West Hills, Ca.
    I have an issue paying extra for "diseased" wood, because someone thinks it looks cool.

    It's like now having to pay more for chicken wings, cuz somebody spilled some hot sauce on one!
  10. Michael Karn

    Michael Karn

    Apr 16, 2014
    Arnold, i feel like i remember you telling me once that highly flamed wood was structurally not as inherently strong as more plainly figured wood. Does that sound like something you might have said? Or just my overactive imagination again?
  11. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    I did indeed say that. Plain wood tends to be a bit stiffer. But is stiffer a good thing for bass register frequencies?
  12. Ortsom

    Ortsom Inactive

    Mar 23, 2016
    Various woods can be used.
    With a slightly higher E, the same plate stiffness is achieved at a slightly lower thickness. If, wrt one vibration mode, the area is predominantly bending, the effect is negligible, if it is predominantly moving, the result is a slightly higher resonance frequency. In other words, tuning will depend on wood properties & can compensate for differences therein.

    Edit/add: in no way does this negate what Arnold said earlier. It is a natural choice that the most beautiful woods get the most attention & are used in the first choice instruments. But well sounding instruments can also be made from plain looking woods.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2016
    gnypp45 likes this.
  13. Ortsom

    Ortsom Inactive

    Mar 23, 2016
    Then by all means, don't. Your money, your choice.
    Btw, 'diseased' may not be the most universally accepted description.
    arnoldschnitzer likes this.
  14. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    Totally agree!
  15. eyeballkid


    Jul 19, 2009
    Haven't you heard of "tone figuring"? It can make or break a bass! ;-)
  16. CharlyG

    CharlyG ~ he not busy being born Is busy dying.

    Jun 11, 2005
    West Hills, Ca.
    Fungus, parasites, disease, rot, all the same to me. I would think the most pristine unfigured(other than the rings/grain) wood, would be the thing demanding the highest prices.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2016
  17. Michael Karn

    Michael Karn

    Apr 16, 2014
    I'm gonna Honestly, the only wood i know anything about are saxophone reeds
  18. Carving and planing figured maple vs. plain is more exacting, too! More time honing and stropping the tools to avoid chip-out! Also bending highly flamed ribs can be more challenging, too. That plus the premium wood dealers charge for fine flamed wood over plain surely accounts for some of the price difference.
  19. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    Supply and demand at work. Plain maple is common; highly flamed maple trees are one in several thousand, Flame is not a disease; it's a folding over (and back, and over, and back...) of the end grain that occurs in the growing of the tree for reasons that are not fully understood.
  20. You're thinking of spalt, which is not the same thing at all as the wavy or curly appearance acquired by good healthy hardwood that has been subjected to varying mineral levels in the soil during the tree's lifespan.

    Spalt is rot, and I think it's ugly as sin. Leave it to the slab guys...